Founders and the Constitution
Robert Morris (1734-1806)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of Robert Morris. They will learn about his role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny, in stabilizing the finances of the United States, and support of the Constitution.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
It is the duty of every individual to act his part in whatever station his country may call him to in hours of difficulty, danger, and distress. - Robert Morris
Known as the “Financier of the Revolution,” Robert Morris played a critical role in winning and securing American independence. As chairman of the Continental Congress’s Finance Committee between 1775 and 1778, Morris traded flour and tobacco to France in exchange for war supplies such as guns, powder, and blankets. Morris risked his own ships in bringing these supplies past the fearsome British Navy. He was also the architect of the financial system of the early republic. As superintendent of finance under the Articles of Confederation, Morris almost single-handedly saved the United States from financial catastrophe in the 1780s.His plan to fund the national debt and to deposit federal money in a private bank foreshadowed the financial system that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton would implement in the 1790s.
Though Morris risked much of his personal wealth in service to his country, he was criticized by some for profiting from public service. During his chairmanship of Congress’ Finance Committee, Morris’ company was paid by the American government a commission of two percent on each shipment of supplies the company brought into the country. This compensation was in lieu of the salary that most public officials received. Nevertheless, Morris’s enemies seized upon the appearance of impropriety and charged him with malfeasance. But investigations of Morris’s conduct failed to turn up evidence of wrongdoing. Some of the accusations against him were motivated by jealousy, as Morris became perhaps the richest man in America in the 1780s.
Morris signed all three of the nation’s principal documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was indeed a leading supporter of the Constitution, believing it imperative that the national government be empowered to deal with the country’s financial problems. Despite his genius for money, however, Morris fell on hard times in the 1790s. The man who was largely responsible for the nation’s emerging prosperity ironically spent his final years in poverty.
Relevant Thematic Essays
In this lesson, students will learn about Robert Morris. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Robert Morris (1734–1806) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Robert Morris on States’ Responsibilities, in which Morris tries to persuade the governors of the states to fulfill their quotas of money and supplies. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to compare the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution or to revise one part of the Articles as Morris would have liked it to read. Extensions provides opportunity for thought as students are asked to compose a letter of supplication using techniques employed by Morris in his Circular to the Governors of the States.
- appreciate Morris’ role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
- explain Morris’ role in stabilizing the finances of the United States
- analyze the reasons for Morris’s support of the Constitution
- understand how Morris accumulated and then lost his wealth
- Handout A—Robert Morris (1734–1806)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: Robert Morris on States’ Responsibilities
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—Robert Morris (1734–1806) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Robert Morris.
Robert Morris was a successful Philadelphia merchant. In the 1760s and 1770s, he became a leader of American resistance to British rule. During the Revolution, he held the post of chairman of the Continental Congress’s Finance Committee. After the Articles of Confederation were adopted, he became superintendent of finance, the highest-ranking office under the Articles. Morris had broad powers, which he used to stabilize the nation’s financial system. Morris made money from public service. Some people at the time criticized Morris for profiting at the expense of the country, but a congressional committee found him innocent of any wrongdoing. Morris was a proponent of a strong central government and supported the Constitution, which he signed as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.Morris became a United States senator in the first federal Congress. In the 1790s, he had financial trouble and was put into debtor’s prison. The man who had once been called “the richest man in America” died in poverty in 1806 at the age of seventy-three.
Context 5 min.
Explain to the students that the national Congress created by the Articles of Confederation (which went into effect in 1781) had few powers and could not force the individual states to comply with its requests. As superintendent of finance, Robert Morris was forced to rely on his persuasive powers in order to get the states to fulfill quotas of money and supplies that Congress asked them to contribute to the national government.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
- Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: Robert Morris on States’ Responsibilities. Be sure that the students understand the vocabulary and the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
- Have the students read the document aloud, taking turns every sentence or so. After each sentence, have a volunteer paraphrase Morris’s words.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Ask the students to consider the tone of Morris’ letter. What is Morris’ attitude toward the governors? Have students underline/circle words and phrases that reflect this tone. What does this letter reveal about the relationship between the central government and the states under the Articles of Confederation?
See Answer Key.
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Students could compare the powers given to Congress by Article IX of the Articles of Confederation to the powers given to Congress by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
- Students could assume the identity of Robert Morris and revise Article IX of the Articles of Confederation as he would have liked it to read. The Articles of Confederation can be found at: <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/artconf.htm>The Constitution can be found at: <http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/sections.php?op=viewarticle&artid=44>
Students could compose a letter of supplication to someone over whom they have no authority. They can use the techniques of persuasion employed by Morris. Possibilities for the letter include the following:
- a letter to a parent asking permission to go on an overnight trip with friends
- a cover letter for a job application
- a letter inviting a speaker to address a student group
- a letter pleading with a school official to reduce a punishment for an infraction committed by the student
- a letter to be published in a student newspaper asking students to contribute to a charitable fund
Catanzariti, John, and James E. Ferguson (ed). The Papers of Robert Morris, 1781–1784. 9 vols. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973–1999.
Cook, Frank Gaylord. “Robert Morris.” The Atlantic Monthly 66, (November 1890): 607–618.
Oberholtzer, Ellis P. Robert Morris: Patriot and Financier. New York: Burt Franklin, 1969.
Sumner, William Graham. Robert Morris, The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution. 2 vols. Reprint. Frederick, MD: Beard, 2000.
Ver Steeg, Clarence L. Robert Morris: Revolutionary Financier. New York: Octagon Books, 1972.
“Robert Morris.” U.S. Army Center of Military History. <http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/revwar/ss/morris.htm>.
“Robert Morris, Circular to the Governors of the States.” The University of Chicago Press. <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch5s3.html>.
“Robert Morris to the President of Congress.” The University of Chicago Press.<http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch5s7.html>.
Robert Morris, 1734–1806, Revolutionary. Created by Robert Morris VIII. Self-published, © 2003.
By Robert Morris
- Circular to the Governors of the States (1781)
- Handout A: Robert Morris (1734-1806)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: Robert Morris on States' Responsibilities
- Thematic Essays